Thursday, June 19, 2008 |
Posted by Alexandra Stevenson
Editor's note: Alexandra Stevenson, a former Wimbledon semifinalist in 1999, has been out of the game for a prolonged period of time, rehabbing a shoulder injury. Stevenson has pronounced herself healthy this year and is vying to get back into the game. She takes us through her qualifying journey to get into the main draw at Wimbledon.
I was in Birmingham, England for a grass warmup to Wimbledon. It was my first time back in five years, and it seems like I've been away from the tour forever. Mostly, people still come up to me and say, "Oh, you're the girl who played great at Wimbledon a couple of years ago." It was nine seasons ago. And hey, you're that basketball player's daughter." Or I'll be in the security line at any airport in America and one of the guards will start talking to his pal, "That's Dr. J's girl." In the beginning when everyone found out who my father was, I didn't like the intrusion. Now, I tell my mom, "They are fans. They've got my back." And just so you know, I still haven't met my father. But, for the first time, I don't mind telling you that I am the daughter of Samantha Stevenson and Julius Erving.
I had labral shoulder surgery on September 21, 2004 with Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Alabama. It was a labral tear on my right shoulder -- my serving shoulder. My injury was likened to a baseball pitcher throwing 95 mph fastballs. My serve was 108-126 mph. My second serve was 100-115 mph. My coach used to say, "Do Goran [Ivanisovic] -- down the middle, flat and big." We practiced big serves every day from the time I was 9 years old.
Quarterbacks and pitchers come back from this surgery in about 18 months. Tennis players have a harder road because they have to hit a tennis ball. It took me 3½ with a lot of starts, stops and retirements within the match. A pitching coach can pull a pitcher and rest him for four days. I had to retire as soon as the pain was too much to bear and lose a tournament. We worked on motion, strength and endurance. I had amazing help from Mark Verstegen at Athletes Performance and star physical therapists like Kevin Wilk in Birmingham, Gary Guerrero in New York, Bob Donatelli in Las Vegas and Omi Iwasaki in Los Angeles. And now, Chris Pogson in Santa Monica. These guys brought me back to the game. And so did the training room.
This is the sacred place for athletes and trainers where you lay on tables and get your injuries worked on and talk. The talk kept me going. For the last three years I have talked about everything with professional athletes: guys from soccer, baseball, basketball, football, hockey and wrestling. We talk about girlfriends, boyfriends, politics, business and getting back from the injury and the pain. No one is allowed not to believe. I made my first rap in front of some highly rated NBA draft players and I passed their test. I'm healthy now, so I'm out of the training room and I miss the one of a kind camaraderie that you can only get from team players.
I can see the Wimbledon grounds from my bedroom window. I have lived in the same yellow house on Marryat Road since I was a junior in 1998. It always looks the same and every Wimbledon season you can count on the same moments like saying hello to Jimmy and Colette Evert as they walk past my house to collect their tickets for the day's games.
My mom, Samantha Stevenson, and I live with Nigel and Pam Jennings and their sons, Nick, Simon and Tom. Tom was 3 years old when I first came into the house. Now, Nick is 17 at Kings College Wimbledon, Simon is 16 at Epsom College and Tom is 13 and graduating from Rokeby, a private boys' school. The boys are my passionate supporters and remember every Wimbledon story. They remind me that their favorite moment -- other than my winning matches -- was the year they were allowed to pick up practice balls for Anna Kournikova and me on a Wimbledon court. Anna showed up in black bike shorts and the Wimbledon director, Chris Gorringe, promptly asked her to change into whites. Anna took Harold Solomon's new white shorts out of his bag, cut the tags -- with coach Harold loudly complaining -- and to the delight of my three boys undressed on the court and redressed.
My shoulder got strong in April. I made a six-week run on the clay to gain ranking points -- and clay is not my best surface. I learned to love the clay and moved 200 spots. It was not enough for Wimbledon main draw, but I am close to getting into qualifying.
So, what am I doing out here? I'm working to be No. 1 in the world and win Grand Slam championships. I lost 3½ seasons, but my body is trained and fit. Gil Reyes, Andre Agassi's fitness coach, told me that I'm really a 23 year-old in my body because of my time off. I'll go with that.
I made it into Wimbledon qualifying. I was the next to last one in -- and it was close. Two girls pulled out in the last 10 minutes. My first-round match was against Neuza Silva from Portugal. I won in three sets, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. The conditions were windy and noisy. The grounds at Roehampton are notorious for the bunched courts -- bad bounces on the grass -- and airplanes flying out of Heathrow directly over your match. Silva was a tricky player with her quality backhand slice. The toss on my serve was moving too much in the wind and I had to figure out how to get a first serve in the court. My serve was on at the end of the third set and I was happy to go to the training room a winner with a backhand down the line.
I definitely had butterflies in the beginning of the match. I was ready to play, but I felt rushed. I was the first match on and we had a traffic delay before my practice time as we were driving into the grounds. There are times when you see the ball so big and your feet really feel the ground. I didn't feel that today. I had to really work on every point. I competed and that's what pulled me through. It may be qualifying, but it is Wimbledon qualifying. Two more to go.
I lost today on Court A -- the only one in Roehampton grounds that had not been played on during the tournament. My scheduled court was No. 12 and the groundsmen took the court out and moved the matches. Court A felt like a grass field. No excuses. Someone had to win, but I would prefer a proper grass court like Wimbledon. These courts are built on a cricket field that is not meant for tennis. Bottom line -- when you play Wimbledon you had better be in the main draw. Qualifying for any Grand Slam is difficult, but none more than Wimbledon qualis at Roehampton.
Having said that, I wanted to play here because I have worked so hard to bring my shoulder back from surgery. I am healthy and fit. I thought I was ready to play, but there is something to be said about match toughness. I haven't had enough matches to play my best tennis -- and I missed out on a warmup event in Birmingham by one player because of my ranking.
I knew this would not be easy, but my athlete's mentality expected me to win my matches. It was the biggest emotional letdown of my career. This was the first time I was in a position to play in a Grand Slam tournament with a healthy body. I dream big as everyone should, but when the dream dies you feel like you are at the bottom of an abyss with no way out. I cried 10 times throughout the day. My coach, Jason Nius, said he could sense there was more riding on the match than just the match. He said he found it difficult to talk to me when he saw the disappointment and the tears. He thought I was hitting the ball great going into the tournament. I walked to the training room sobbing. Christian, my friend and advisor told me before the match I would need a lot of energy because of my emotions.
Roehampton was the start of my career -- and the disruption of my professional job when I realized I needed shoulder surgery in 2004. I guess you could look at this new start as positive -- and though I lost Wednesday this is the beginning of my comeback. Sometimes in life things don't always go the way you want them to and you have to adjust.
On Saturday, Jenny Mitchell and the Hurlingham Club asked me to play in an exhibition against Maria Sharapova. I have played several Garden Parties at Hurlingham during my early career and the club members were excited to see me healthy and playing at such a high level. A Garden Party at Hurlingham is a throwback to traditional grass tennis. I agreed to play. Sharapova sent a message through her agent: "Not for a million dollars will I play Alexandra Stevenson." I'm glad I still strike fear in a top player.
Not sure what's funnier: What Maria said or Alex thinking Maria doesn't want to play her because she is scared. Gotta love delusional Alex.